Call it the February offensive. Beijing is set to unleash a series of initiatives to prevent the reelection of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who is seen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as pushing the island toward de jure independence. While the CCP leadership under President Hu Jintao is expected to employ diplomatic, economic and perhaps even quasi-military means, Beijing’s main weapon is calling on the United States to help defuse Chen’s pro-separatist game plan–and in such a way as to minimize the chances of Chen securing another four-year term. Chen, who is also chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is waging a heated electoral campaign against challenger Lien Chan, the chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party.
Beijing sources said the CCP’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA), which is headed by Hu, wanted to deliver a blunt message to President George W. Bush and his aides later this month. “Beijing will tell the Bush administration that four more years of administration under Chen Shui-bian and his radical DPP colleagues could lead to a grave Sino-U.S. crisis,” said a source close to Beijing’s Taiwan policy making apparatus. “The CCP leadership will stress that because China and the U.S. have so many common goals–including the global war against terrorism–it is also in Washington’s interest that Chen not be reelected.”
In recent discussions with senior Bush administration officials, CCP and government cadres have made it clear that, at the very least, Beijing hopes Washington will do whatever it can to prevent Chen from holding referendums on election day, March 20. And in talks with Washington planned for this month, senior Chinese officials and diplomats are expected to urge the United States to give subtle but unmistakable signals that Washington does not favor the DPP Chairman’s reelection. Given that most polls in Taiwan show Chen and Lien running neck and neck, Chen’s reelection prospects could be dealt a significant blow if he is seen as lacking the support of Washington, which is seen on the self-ruled island as an indispensable ally.
In return for Washington’s help, Beijing will offer China’s full cooperation in Bush’s global anti-terrorism campaign. In particular, the Hu team will pledge to use China’s influence with Pyongyang to oblige the Kim Jong-Il regime to dismantle its program of weapons of mass destruction. “Beijing will make clear that as a constructive, cooperative partner of Washington, China will respect–and in no way challenge–America’s position of pre-eminence in the global order,” said a Chinese diplomatic source. “However, Sino-U.S. cooperation on Taiwan matters is a cornerstone of this partnership.” Beijing has also indirectly conveyed to U.S. officials the message that, given Bush’s residual problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, a breakthrough on the North Korean front could help Bush’s reelection this November.
Apart from senior diplomats, officials slated to visit the United States this month include the director of the cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office, Chen Yunlin. So far, Beijing is reasonably optimistic that Washington will be forthcoming on the Taiwan issue. In discussions with Premier Wen Jiabao in December, Bush indicated explicitly that he was “opposed to any unilateral decision [by Taipei] to change the status quo” of the Taiwan Strait. Wen called Bush’s statement a “major foreign policy achievement” for China. Beijing was also satisfied with the serious reservations that Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage expressed over Chen’s referendum plans. During his visit to the Chinese capital late last month, Armitage indicated that Taiwan’s proposed referendum could upset volatile cross-Straits relations. “As much as we respect Taiwan’s democracy, the referendum in question does raise questions,” the senior diplomat said.
President Hu and his advisers are reportedly so happy with U.S. cooperation that they have privately expressed support for Bush’s reelection. It is understood that in an internal address last month, Hu repeated a dictum attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong after the latter had met with former President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s: “It’s easier to deal with American rightists rather than politicians with liberal inclinations.”
Apart from the United States, Beijing is vigorously lobbying other influential nations to express opposition to Taiwan independence in general, and Chen’s “referendum politics” in particular. The CCP leadership’s confidence in playing the “global diplomatic card” against Taiwan was buttressed by Hu’s success in eliciting from French President Jacques Chirac an unusually strong condemnation of Taipei in late January. The French leader said with reference to the Chen administration that “breaking the status quo with a unilateral destabilizing initiative, including a referendum…would be a grave error.” The Chinese leadership is convinced that, without international support, Chen cannot go very far with his separatist agenda. Moreover, opposition leaders in Taiwan, including the KMT’s Lien, could play up the fact that Chen’s election gimmicks had resulted in Taiwan’s worsening international isolation.
In addition to firing diplomatic salvoes, the LGTA is beefing up united front work among mainland-based Taiwan businessmen. They have been reassured that Beijing’s struggle against the DPP will not jeopardize their commercial prospects. Cadres in Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office have also encouraged Taiwan businessmen and technicians to return home to vote in the March 20 polls. The Taiwan media has reported that opposition parties are arranging inexpensive flights for mainland-based Taiwan residents to return to the island to cast their ballots. Beijing’s hope is that in return for commercial opportunities on the mainland, Taiwan executives will work hard to prevent Chen’s reelection.
At the same time, Beijing’s Taiwan experts, including strategists in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are keeping a close watch on whether Chen will do something “even more desperate” should signs emerge that he will lose the election to challenger Lien. As Beijing-based Taiwan expert Zhu Jun noted, Chinese authorities must raise their guard against “a final burst of irrationality” from Chen if his chances are faltering closer to election day. Zhu noted that, to preserve the separatists’ power, “a desperate Chen might risk war with the mainland” by holding a plebiscite on Taiwan’s full-fledged independent status, or using other means to declare outright independence.
In anticipation that in the last days of the campaign Chen may resort to even more inflammatory gestures to augment his reelection chances, the policy making Central Military Commission is stepping up preparations for some form of tough military action that may be taken “to teach Chen a lesson.” Military sources in Beijing said heavy equipment and crack troops from different parts of China had been moved to the Nanjing Military Region, which is responsible for the Taiwan theater. Vacation and other leaves for soldiers billeted along the coast as well as those serving in missile brigades and other strategic units have been cancelled after the Chinese New Year.
In the run-up to the March 20 presidential polls in Taiwan, President Hu has also given orders to both ministries and provinces to “take maintaining stability as the overriding task.” For example, the Ministries of Public Security and State Security have been told to keep a close watch on destabilizing agents ranging from jobless peasants to wildcat trade unionists. The CCP Propaganda Department is clamping a tight lid on expressions of dissent on the internet. And after the discovery of several new SARS cases in Guangdong–as well as bird flu among poultry in provinces and cities including Guangxi, Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei Anhui and Shanghai–Beijing has ordered these areas to use all necessary means to contain the outbreak.
“The Hu team wants to focus its energy on handling the Taiwan crisis,” said a party source in the capital. “An outbreak of SARS on the order of spring last year will greatly impair Beijing’s ability to make an appropriately tough response should something go badly wrong.” As tension keeps rising–and nerves in both capitals are being stretched to the breaking point–the possibility of an accident or a misunderstanding triggering a full-scale conflagration cannot be discounted.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best-known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.